Searching for Happiness

Richard Boersma, LPC

We all want to be happy.  It's not our minute-by-minute focus, but happiness hovers in our peripheral vision.  It's life’s undeclared objective for you, for me, and for all those other guys, our ever-present ambition whether we say so or not.

So why do some people seem happier than others?  Is there a formula for satisfaction in life?  Turns out, there is…sort of.  Researchers have given more attention to this topic in recent years, and they have some answers for us.

 

FALSE POSITIVES

First of all, there are many persistent notions about becoming happier that have been disproven, but they just won't die.  Let’s get them out of the way.  The main myth is that financial wealth can bring happiness.  Mental health research has consistently found that, once income exceeds the level necessary to support basic needs, it no longer correlates with happiness.  What’s more, people in prosperous nations like ours are found to be less likely (on average) to be happy with their lives than those in Third World, "deprived" countries.  It's true!  And wealthy couples are more likely to split up than those in marriages where money is scarce.  If you need more evidence, track the life of the next big lottery winner.

Other fictions link happiness to intelligence, education, career, and location.  Again, objective research finds little support for any of these assets.  An uneducated dockworker in Djibouti is as likely to be enjoying his life as a professor at Princeton.  And vice-versa: a Wall Street stockbroker has an equal probability of being satisfied with her life as does a seasonal lift operator at the Steamboat Ski Area.  Geography, work assignment, and brain power simply do not predict happiness.

Other common misconceptions? How about the “happiness” of being young?  Wrong!  Older people are generally more content with their lives than younger adults (and dark moods or depression hit those in their young 20’s an average of 3.4 days a month while those over 60 have down-days only 2.3 days a month).  How about being married?  Well, that’s a mixed picture.  On average, married people tend to be generally happier than same-aged singles or divorcees, but there’s also evidence that those in stable marriages were happier to begin with.  What about climate?  Negative.  Several studies found those living in sunny climes like southern California or Arizona are no happier on average than those in Minnesota or upstate New York.  One caveat: some people are susceptible to seasonal affective disorder due to lack of sun exposure, but that’s an individual problem (and quite treatable).

THE REAL STUFF

So what does correlate with general happiness?

  • People  That’s right, being with and enjoying other people consistently tops the findings of happiologists.  Those who are happiest spend less time alone than those who feel blue.  It’s probably a self-reinforcing relationship: being with people brightens your day, in general, and happy people are more drawn to be with others.  We’re talking about general trends in the population here, and these findings do not necessarily fit everyone’s prescription for happiness.  After all, introverted people, as well as those without family or new to an area, can and do feel happy on the basis of things other than current people interactions. 

  • Perspective  This is a vague term, but happiness investigators have found that a person’s general attitude about themselves and life is the ultimate front door to satisfaction.  Feeling grateful for what we have or what life provides is the most frequent finding (not faking it or “saying” thanks, but really feeling apprecia­tive).  A subset of gratitude is altruism.  We’ve all known the feel-good of giving to someone in need – a dollar in the charity bucket at WalMart, volunteering time for a community cause, or shoveling snow from your elderly neighbor’s sidewalk.  Altruism "gives" and gives back.

  • Engagement  Those who regularly spend time engaged in an activity important to them, report more contentment with themselves and their lives that others.  For adults this might be called “work” (welding, nursing, accounting), but just being employed is not the same thing as engagement (except for the lucky few who love their jobs).  Playing a guitar, making a quilt, tutoring a child, or writing a blog can all be engaging for someone.  The activity isn’t the issue; it’s the subjective sense of immersion in something.

 

  • Genetics  That’s right, your gene pool plays a major part in your happiness.  After studying over 4,000 sets of twins, researcher David Lykken concluded that some of us have inborn predispositions toward a sunny, positive outlook, less susceptibility to stress and depression, and consequently a better chance of handling life’s vicissitudes than others.  Lykken thinks we each have a “happy set point”, much like that of our body weight, and that we each operate in a limited range around our personal norm pretty much regardless of our experiences.  So if you think you’re doing well in #1, #2, and #3 above, but still feel less happy than you want to, blame it on your parents.  There now, that feels better, doesn’t it?

 

  • God  This is a tricky one.  Religious people report, on average, a slightly higher level of personal happiness than those without a orthodox belief in a divinity.  But researchers suggest caution in drawing conclusions.  Going to a church or temple means socializing (as well as worshipping), which taps into #1 and #3, above, and believing in an omniscient divinity probably allows one to feel more #2 as well.  If this is true, then religions now have a terrific recruitment opportunity:  “Come worship with us, and have a happier life.”

 

BUT NONE OF THAT HELPS ME!

 

If you’re reading this because you feel depressed, pessimistic, insignificant, addicted, lonely, or otherwise unhappy, there is real value in knowing the foregoing and seeing which of the misconceptions about happiness you’ve been subscribing to, and what paths to real happiness you can tap into.  While satisfaction in life is by no means a guarantee, there’s simply no reason to trudge through life on the dark side.

Many people have discovered the value of counseling as a way to re-chart the course of their lives.  If you’ve tried pulling your life up by your bootstraps and had little success, a professional can help you identify the self-defeating messages you may carry around, and help you establish healthier, happier ones.  A so-called “life coach” might also be the kind of helper you need to make life’s journey a more fulfilling one, but always check credentials and qualifications.

There are lots of advice-givers in books, on television, and online.  Some seem geared to profit from the universal quest for happiness, like those who guarantee weight loss from new diet programs or spiritual joy by giving money to a megachurch.  But there are many excellent resources as well, and one of them might inspire you.  Here are some of the best books (in red), some of the best websites (blue), and some of the best podcasts (purple).  NOTE: book links go to information about the book itself, not to Amazon.  The hope is that you'll purchase that book from your local bookseller, giving and getting a little happiness (#1 and #2 above)

Authentic Happiness  Called the "father of positive psychology," author Martin Seligman promotes a happiness path based on paying attention to your strengths rather than your weaknesses.  Sound simple?  He makes it easier.

How To Be Happy  I suspect the author is Shawn Achor (see Happiness Advantage) but for some reason the author isn't identified.  It's a straightforward 7-key program, very readable and worth the visit.

Harvesting Happiness  Lisa Cypers Kamen is a "happiness psychologist" well-known to media, business, academia, and other institutions.  This is that truely inspirational podcast you want playing when you're working, running, or being lazy. Pursuit of Happiness  This Psychology Today piece, by Carlin Flora, is one of the more readable online discussions of happiness and also offers some specific advice we can all implement in our lives. Give it a click.

How To Find Happiness  (subtitled "everything we know so far").  An easy read full of personal references about struggles and successes, but that's what makes it good.  Sometimes all the "facts" don't mean as much as a fellow traveler's words. 

The Happiness Advantage  Harvard's Shawn Achor conducted the largest field study on happiness, including over 1600 students, and has developed seven core principles for a fulfilling, happy life.

The Happiness Podcast  Author, lecturer, and psychologist Robert Puff talks about anxiety and depression as well as true mental health.  This is a highly ranked podcast on iTunes, downloaded over 7 million times.

Stumbling on Happiness  This Ted Talk video is a stage presentation by Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard psychologist and author of the book by the same name as the video.  I guarantee he will hold your attention, and put some new thoughts in your head.